By: Michelle Ferguson
Algonquin is finally ready to renew its commitment to sustainability by rolling out a new strategy framework.
Approved by the college in November 2012, the framework focuses on nine priorities —three within each core pillar of sustainability — that will encourage students, staff and faculty to think and act in a more environmentally, socially and economically responsible way.
The main purpose of the document is to establish a set of guiding principles, which over time will be integrated into each aspect of the college.
“(Sustainability) is a way of being, a way of acting, it’s not so much a generalized concept,” said Doug Wotherspoon, executive sponsor of the Sustainable Algonquin Steering Committee. “It’s so broad that you really need to place some flags in some areas that you’re going to spend some time on.”
An early adopter of sustainability principles, Algonquin’s efforts started off as with grassroots movement, when in 2008 then-vice-president academic Kent MacDonald put out a call to see who was interested in participating in an environmental committee, which later became SASC.
Despite the committee’s humble beginnings, the college’s dedication to sustainability started off strong.
Algonquin was the first college in Canada to sign the Talloires Declaration — an international agreement between post-secondary officials for advancing sustainability through teaching, research, operations and outreach. As of May 2012, 440 institutions had signed the declaration.
“It was really a bold step for the college to step up and sign on even though we didn’t really know the full implications of what that meant,” said Phil Rouble, associate director for facilities planning and sustainability and member of SASC. “It was just the right thing to do.”
SASC also started working on a college-wide strategy very early on.
Aware that they weren’t about to re-invent the wheel, SASC put out a call for consultants and enlisted Sustainability Solutions Group to assist them in developing a framework.
“One of the things that the committee did was that we acknowledged that we didn’t really have a lot of depth and understanding about sustainability,” said Rouble. “So we wanted to bring some help in to put the college on a really solid path going forward.”
Many departments — Food Services and Physical Resources in particular — were quick to pick up some of the ideas listed in the best practices document produced by the consulting team, adapting them to fit the college’s needs.
But after a couple years of high activity SASC hit a bit of a lull period.
Although the old committee “never fell of the map” it did become “exhausted” admitted Rouble. “It’s actually a common phenomenon in organizations as they move into sustainability.”
The lack of visibility garnered some criticism — particularly from Natalie Robinson, a course facilitator for the sustainability education program, who wrote a Master’s thesis at Dalhousie University in 2011 entitled Word up: Algonquin College as a sustainability leader.
In her thesis, Robinson points out several areas for improvement, primarily SASC’s bureaucratic and exclusive feel and the lack of community and student participation in its sustainability initiatives.
“There’s passion that exists for sustainability issues within our faculty, staff and students; and that’s not tapped right now,” said Robinson in an interview with the Times.
Another one of Robinson’s criticisms was the lack of knowledge at the student level. While most students felt that sustainability was important, they were unable to define the concept or identify the three pillars.
A survey conducted in the cafeteria showed that 62 per cent of students had not learnt about sustainability in their programs.
But Robinson pointed out that “there seemed to be a real hunger amongst the students to actually understanding what this means.”
That hunger is about to be satisfied.
Recently the committee got a second wind — gearing up to unfold its new sustainability strategy framework, as well as launch its new website.
As a community college, Algonquin decided to place a large focus on student learning by developing a new sustainability and internationalization vocational learning outcome that will be embedded into all full-time programs of study.
“Imagine having 750 faculty members teaching sustainability concepts, rather than just one,” said Wotherspoon. “That’s the scale that moves an organization in major ways.”
Already adopted by 12 full-time programs this past year, the learning outcome is designed to deliver discipline-specific practices that encourage social responsibility, economic commitment and environmental stewardship in the local and global communities.
So while interacting with a diverse population may be the focus in a program such as policing, re-usability and energy conservation may play a larger role in hospitality explained Stephen Murphy, a curriculum support services professor.
Jo-Ann Aubut, acting dean of academic development, said that soon enough sustainable practices will become part of the way that everyone lives and does business and it’s important to prepare students for that market.
“Right now we’re articulating it, but I suspect that somewhere down the road it won’t even be necessary, it will just be part of the way we do things,” she said. “And that’s our objective, to get there, and this is just one of those roads.”
As a whole, the framework focuses on empowering individuals and making the process more inclusive, so that every student, faculty member and staff can see themselves reflected in the efforts of the college.
The framework is meant to be directional, not prescriptive — a characteristic that Wotherspoon really stressed.
“You can either view sustainability as a project or as a way of being,” he said. “And most organizations have viewed it as a project, as just something added on to the list of things they need to be thinking about.
Truly successful organizations, and I think of UBC and others, have really embedded it as a way of being, as a way of thinking.”
A process that takes time he added.
“It’s a little bit more time consuming, but I think the committee and all the thinkers believe that if you can own it in your core it will be sustainable long after the project ends.”